University of Phoenix signage may appear the same from Interstate 10, but the for-profit college now has its own Baton Rouge identity, the college leaders say.

Previously operating as the University of Phoenix in Louisiana with four campuses statewide lumped together, the Baton Rouge campus on South Acadian Thruway now has its own leadership and internal operations.

“It gives the students a better experience,” said Michelle Smith, the new Baton Rouge campus director.

“They’re able to get the full leadership at every campus,” Smith said. “We have a better identity, and it allows for more attention to detail.”

Previously, the college’s director was based in Metairie. “Now. we have our own academic governance structure,” she said.

A Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate, Smith moved back to her hometown last year after leaving her previous job as vice president of operations for Ameriprise Financial.

The campus transition process was just completed in August, she said, with some adjustments still ongoing.

The move also means much more community involvement, Smith said, and plans to work more closely with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

“A lot of times we were lumped in as the Louisiana campus, and a lot of people didn’t realize we’re here locally and making a difference,” Smith said.

The University of Phoenix is owned by publicly traded Apollo Group Inc. The university has more than 200 campuses and learning centers worldwide, but only a few extend beyond the U.S. borders.

Although the number constantly varies, the 11-year-old Baton Rouge campus typically enrolls about 1,600 students, although close to half of them take classes exclusively online, Smith said. The average students are in their 30s.

“Most of our student base is working adults raising families,” she said.

The university is continually adding academic programs, in terms of more associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she said, and there are plans to fully renovate the campus in 2012.

Programs are growing in the areas of criminal justice, psychology, business management and health-care administration, among others, she said. Most of the faculty teach part time and have careers outside of the university.

Online student resources are constantly being added, Smith said, like a new University of Phoenix mobile phone app that allows students to access their coursework from their phones.

But Lee Melancon, the director of academic affairs, said having a stronger leadership presence in Baton Rouge can help bring more students into the classroom.

“The technology is wonderful,” Melancon said. “But it’s nice to be able to have sit-downs and meet each other.”

That allows for more individual counseling, study groups and more, he said.

The biggest criticisms of the University of Phoenix often have revolved around the much higher tuition costs than most public colleges, the levels of student loan debt and the low graduation rates. There also have been lawsuits, nationally, regarding admissions practices.

Smith said university admissions officers go out of their way to ensure students understand the costs and their financial aid options.

“Students have the ability to get financial aid and they can choose any university they want,” she said. “They’re going into it with open eyes.”

Students without college experience also take a free, three-week workshop that demonstrates the rigor and shows them if they are ready to enroll or not, she said.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said schools such as the University of Phoenix fill a niche for working adults, while showing public community colleges and universities where they are failing to meet community demands.

“You can take some lessons from where they’re actually gaining,” Purcell said.

But public colleges offer a lot of the same services “at a more affordable rate,” he said.

About 20 percent of Louisiana residents have some college experience but no college degree, Purcell said. There are some efforts to reach out to such potential students, he said, but more must be done.

And all schools — public, private and for-profits — must address costs, he said. Louisiana college students now acquire more than $1 billion in student loans annually, he added.

“That is something we’ve all got to work through,” Purcell said.